Monsters and Monstrosity in Jewish History

From the Middle Ages to Modernity

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Editor(s): 
Iris Idelson-Shein, Christian Wiese
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     2019.
     288 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781350052147.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Monsters and Monstrosity in Jewish History From the Middle Ages to Modernity, edited by Iris Idelson-Shein and Christian Wiese, is a collection of thirteen essays which explore the ways in which Jews have been viewed as monstrous by outsiders and the ways in which Jews have constructed and understood monstrosity both with reference to their own communities and others. The editors note that the “unique revelatory power of the monster is the main driving force” (1) on which this collection is built, and individual contributors have engaged the topic in a wide variety of ways, examining questions of power, morality, belonging, insider/outsider status, hierarchy, gender and sexuality, and race through the lens of monstrosity. 

The book is divided into two sections, the first of which is “The Monster Without: Monsters in Jewish-Christian Intercultural Discourse.” This section contains several essays that focus on Christian depictions of Jews as inherently monstrous, such as Debra Higgs Strickland’s “Monsters, Demons, and Jews in the Paintings of Hieronymus Bosch,” and Joela Jacobs’ “A Jewish Frankenstein: Making Monsters in Modernist German Grotesques.” Although this subject may seem well attested in the scholarly literature, these essays bring new and interesting readings to the table, as in Strickland’s compelling argument that art historians have often overlooked strongly Jewish stereotypes and features of many of the demons in Bosch’s paintings. Conversely, the scholarship on Jewish constructions of Christian monstrosity is somewhat sparser, and essays such as Kobi Kabalek’s “Monsters in the Testimonies of Holocaust Survivors” and Marc Michael Epstein’s “Bestial Bodies on the Jewish Margins: Race, Ethnicity and Otherness in Medieval Manuscripts Illuminated for Jews” are important contributions to that field. Both of these chapters examine the ways that Jewish communities negotiated their identities, created and maintained communal boundaries, and grappled with the question of evil through their own discourses on the frequently monstrous Other. 

The second set of essays in this volume, “The Monster Within: Monsters in Jewish Intracommunal Discourse,” invites the reader to consider how internal “monsters” have been understood in Jewish Europe. The chapters call attention to the fact that questions of monstrosity are not merely concerned with monstrous outsiders but are frequently a discursive tool used to negotiate and maintain communal boundaries through the fear of the demons within. David I. Shyovitz’s “Unearthing the ‘Children of Cain’: Between Humans, Animals, and Demons in Medieval Jewish Culture” explores rabbinic writings on the subterranean world of Tevel and challenges the notion that monsters and demons in medieval Judaism were either a product of uncritical belief, simplistic thinking, or a wholesale adoption of Christian folk culture. Instead, he delineates an indigenous Jewish tradition of the demonic that was grounded in sophisticated ways of thinking through deeply troubling questions about the relative position and role of humanity in the divine creation. Two essays in this section, Astrid Lembke’s “The Raging Rabbi: Aggression and Agency in an Early Modern Yiddish Werewolf Tale” and Jay Geller’s “‘Der Volf’ or The Jew as Out(side of the) law,” delve into the role of the werewolf in Jewish culture in both the 17th and 20th centuries. Geller notes that “within Christian discourse the Jew has been associated with the lupine since at least St. John Chrysostom” (251), and his and Lembke’s chapters provide interesting insights into the ways that Jewish communities used this monstrous trope as a symbol of both their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and their fears.

The topics in this collection are fascinating and would surely be of interest to a general audience, particularly as interest in mythology has become increasingly widespread in popular culture. However, most of the essays in this book are heavy on jargon and would not be accessible to wide readership outside of academia. I realize that this volume was not intended for a general audience, but it is unfortunate that the essays are largely inaccessible to interested laypeople.

Overall, this volume is an excellent addition to the scholarly study of monsters. By examining the ways that Christians portrayed Jews as monsters, Jews portrayed Christians as monsters, Jews portrayed other Jews as monsters, and Jews understood monstrosity in general, Monsters and Monstrosity in Jewish History presents an engaging, multi-sided dialogue. Due to the wide range of topics, historical time periods, and theoretical methods represented this book will be of interest to scholars of Judaism, medieval Europe, religion, film studies, art history, monster studies, and related disciplines.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jovita L. Geraci is Adjunct Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Iris Idelson-Shein is Gerda Henkel Research Fellow at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Christian Wiese holds the Martin Buber Chair in Jewish Thought and Philosophy at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

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